Professional wrestling is a popular form of entertainment in the United States for many people, and this includes many fans in the Northwoods. Modern wrestling is a choreographed entertainment rather than a true sport, and the individual most responsible for that distinction had a Northwoods connection. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
Before the 1920s, most professional wrestling matches were real. However, the 1920s was a transitional decade, and by the 1930s practically all professional wrestling matches were staged entertainment. At the center of this transition was one of the most dominant wrestlers of all time, and he was an individual with deep connections to the Northwoods.
Robert Friedrich was born in 1891 near Nekoosa, Wisconsin. Friedrich was a big man. Even as a youngster he was remembered for his strength as an athlete and in working manual labor jobs. In 1907, Friedrich left Nekoosa and moved north to Rhinelander. He took a job at the local paper mill and was assigned to a machine that turned out 100-pound bundles of paper, bundles that Friedrich had to stack in piles 15 feet high. He did this for a full 12-hour shift at 20 cents an hour. In later life he recalled it as the hardest work he ever had to do. He said, “there were times when I was wrestling that I wondered whether taking such abuse was worth the effort.” But then he thought of the paper mill job and pushed through the bout. Just the picture of that hard labor, he said, “brought me through many fights.”
Friedrich was active in team sports in Rhinelander and Antigo during the few years he lived in the area. He was also a bit of a dandy and built up a small debt to a local clothier – a debt which he paid off after he became famous.
Friedrich left Rhinelander after only a few years in the area and went to try his luck as a professional wrestler. He worked and wrestled in Minnesota and North Dakota for a while then returned to Wisconsin where he was soundly beaten by Fred Beell of Marshfield, Wisconsin’s other great professional wrestler. Beell was impressed and predicted that Friedrich would go on to become champion.
Friedrich accepted matches in Iowa and Illinois, but it was in 1913 when he was invited to wrestle in Kentucky that he truly became a pro. In Kentucky he adopted the stage name of Ed “Strangler” Lewis because another wrestler was using the name Bob Frederick. It was in Kentucky that he met and partnered with fellow wrestler Billy Sandow. In 1919 the pair met and partnered with a wrestler named Joseph “Toots” Mondt.” Together, they formed what was known as the Gold Dust Trio.
This trio devised an all-new style of wrestling. They took elements from both freestyle and classic Greco-Roman wrestling then merged it with features taken from boxing, lumber camp brawling, and theater. When combined, modern pro wrestling was born. Lewis rationalized about this and stated: “Well, all this keeps the gamblers from ruining wrestling. It’s already ruined.”
Overall, Strangler Lewis wrestled in over 6000 matches, both real and choreographed. He was a five-time world champion, but always had a soft spot for the Northwoods. After he became famous in the 1920s, he returned many times and maintained a summer cabin in Forrest County south of Crandon. He died in 1966.